Like staring at a beautiful painting for longer than is natural
A lot of indie films are just low-budget nods to Hollywood: they say, "I want in, here are my bona fides. Imagine this movie with two more zeros on the price tag and you'll know what I'm really about." Filmed in two weeks for hardly more than it costs to eat lunch, largely improvised, completely unmanipulative, I Am Josh Polonski's Brother doesn't stoop to knock at Hollywood's door. With a couple of exceptions, the acting is good, and the movie (which was filmed on Super8 and with a very different, almost old-fashioned eye for composition) looks incredible.
Richard Edson plays Abe, one of three brothers who own and manage the family wholesale cloth business on Orchard Street. Before the opening titles, Abe's brother Josh is killed in a drive-by shooting. Abe starts to run after the car - or is he just running away from Josh's bloody body? - and for a moment it seems the action has already begun. It hasn't, though, and in a sense, it never does. Perhaps when Abe ventures into Josh's seedy world in search of his friend Igor? How about when he flaunts his lack of faith during shiva? Maybe now, when Abe visits and then sleeps with Josh's girlfriend, Jill, a $600-a-fling prostitute? Now, as his relationship with surviving older brother Ben becomes strained? No, in fact: at none of these points does Abe cross a threshold over which he cannot return. Each of these things occurs, but seemingly independently of the others, and without a web of interlinking causes and effects, they remain vignettes.
The film is perhaps most hampered by its lack of script. Improvised dialogue often sounds less natural than the "unnatural" act of recitation.The cast mostly overcome that, albeit at the expense of the story: they can't overcome how little their exchanges advance the plot, especially at important moments.
Within the expectations of the film, for example, the confession Abe makes to his dead brother's prostitute ex-girlfriend ("I'm Josh Polonski's brother") couldn't be more important, but the words have no impact whatsoever. When Abe goes on in later scenes to act as if they did, you can't help but feel that the improv and the storyboard are gravely at odds - or are we meant to think Abe's insane? And because the dialogue doesn't give a sense of building causality, the action seems random. In a random narrative universe the viewer can't experience anticipation, and the capacity for tension is lost. At no time until the very last scenes, for example, does Abe do something which he can't undo. Now, trapped by the consequences of his actions, it seems, he will have to struggle until the situation is righted. It took us a long time to get there, but we have at last achieved an irreversible moment in the plot: now something will happen. Instead, the film ends.
I liked I Am Josh Polonski's Brother. There are lots of sympathetic characters, and plenty of good acting. Richard Edson, Meg Hartig, and Etta Barkus are all terrific. The camera work is unusual and appealing, and some of the "slice of life" moments are undeniably engaging: shabbas dinner at the Polonski family apartment, or the eating of the egg after Josh's funeral. Sadly, though, there is little or no tension, and watching it becomes a bit of an effort, like staring at a beautiful painting for longer than is natural.
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